You may be reading this because you have been asked to serve your local church as an elder. Or perhaps you serve on a church Nominating Committee and are wondering what an elder is expected to do. In either case, if you understand the church as the body of Christ, and understand the call to ministry as experienced by each member, this will help you see the role the elder fills within a local church.
God asks the church to be a community of people sharing a common purpose and fellowship, continually growing in faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God. Paul describes the church as “. . . his body, the fullness of him who filleth every thing in every way” (Eph.1:22).
God calls us into His body for the purpose of establishing a saving relationship with Him and community with one another. The Holy Spirit convicts our minds, leads us to repentance, and plants us within the church. Thus, the church is a creation of the Spirit.
The symbol of water baptism marks our entrance into the body of Christ and also marks the baptism of the Holy Spirit experienced by a new disciple. “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, He cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The Holy Spirit is the vital life force of the church. When you come to Christ, you are prepared by the Holy Spirit, who has already led you to repentance, for service.
When a church serves the world it is an expression of the love of Christ to the world. It is the body of Christ serving the worlds’ needs and being used by the Spirit as an agency of salvation.
Thus the church is a servant body. It was created for service. It serves the Lord in praise, serves one another in love, and serves the world in humility. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
God calls every member of the church into ministry. The church is a kingdom of priests set free to minister for Christ. Our priesthood is to each other within the church and to the world. An elder, like any other church officer, is a ministering servant of God. Every Christian believer is called to ministry, gifted by the Holy Spirit, and in baptism ordained for ministry (Eph. 4:11-12).
It was during the Middle Ages that the clergy became distinct from other members as a superior element in the church. The biblical concept of laity includes all believers as ministers in the body. In actuality, however, the church today still has a great distance to go before effectively applying this concept. You should view the work of an elder as a ministry to which God calls people; it is His will operating in their lives.
God supplies each person in the church with the resources for ministry—scripture, spiritual power, God’s character, and spiritual gifts. An elder is equipped for ministry by the gifts received from the Holy Spirit. These spiritual gifts are special abilities given by the Holy Spirit to make his or her ministry effective and build up the body of Christ.
THE ROLE OF THE ELDER
A local elder is an undershepherd for the church. The elder works in close relationship with the pastor and reports to the pastor and church board. He or she is a member of the church board and is usually assigned to one or more planning groups, such as an evangelism council, worship committee, Sabbath School council, or youth ministry committee. As an extension of the pastor, an elder should be open to his counsel, sensitive to the pastor’s vision for the church, teachable, and ready to communicate with him. The relationship between pastor and elders can be built up by regular weekly or monthly meetings that focus on spiritual and personal growth and the needs of the congregation.
All these functions may cause you to wonder just how much time it takes to be a local elder! There obviously should be enough time committed for involvement in outreach ministries, visitation, and administration of the church. But an elder needs to be a person who can manage his time wisely and balance priorities. Generally two to four hours a week represent an appropriate commitment of time for ministry. Any elder will want to maintain enough time for personal spiritual growth, family, and personal recreation in order to maintain a balanced Christian lifestyle. It is possible to be so busy in the service of the Lord that one’s own spirituality suffers! At the same time, to give less than two to four hours of ministry per week would not represent a sincere commitment to the Lord in ministry.
APPROPRIATE SPIRITUAL GIFTS
It will be helpful to review the spiritual gifts that can be employed. They include exhortation, pastor/shepherd, administration, leadership, hospitality, and extraordinary faith.
1. Exhortation is a special ability God gives some to bring encouragement and comfort to others. It is a helping and healing ministry. The literal meaning of the Greek word translated exhortation is “to call to one’s side.” In Acts 16:40 and 20:1 Paul is spoken of as giving encouragement to the churches. This ministry may be exercised with the bereaved, lonely, or discouraged. It is also employed in the spiritual counseling brought to persons in the process of normal church visitation.
2. The gift of pastor/shepherd is the ability to carry a personal responsibility for the spiritual welfare of a group of believers and act as a shepherd, overseer, protector, and guide to the church. (I Peter 5:1-5) “When he ascended on high, he . . . gave gifts unto men . . . some to be pastors.” (Eph. 4:8-11) You may be surprised to realize that the professional pastor is not the only member of the church with this gift. Any church has a number of members who can employ the spiritual gift of pastor/shepherd voluntarily in the feeding, attending and nurturing of people.
3. Administration is referred to as a spiritual gift in I Corinthians 12:28. The Greek word for administration describes the service of directing or steering something. In Revelation 18:17 and Acts 27:11 the word is used to describe a ship master. An administrator guides the church in its progress toward its destination. The members of the church trust a person with administrative gifts to serve the church with love and selflessness while helping it accomplish its goals.
4. Leadership describes the ability to a) Help a congregation set goals in accordance with the purpose of God for the church, and b) Communicate those goals to others in such a way that they harmoniously work together to accomplish them to the glory of God. Romans 12:8 speaks of the spiritual gift of leadership, stating that leaders should exercise diligence and faith in their ministry.
5. Hospitality is an ability to provide an open house and a warm feeling to people. “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others” (I Peter 4:9-10). An elder should be quick to offer hospitality, not only to members of the church but to visitors and community people as well.
6. Extraordinary faith provides an elder with confidence in discerning God’s will. The special gift of faith is a specific perception of God’s will in a particular situation and extraordinary confidence that God will act on behalf of the church.
ACTIVITIES AND EVENTS
ou may already be a church elder and feel somewhat underused. What further service can an experienced elder contribute to the church? A good place to start is to ask another elder or a deacon or deaconess to accompany you as you visit members of the church on a regular basis. Call ahead for an appointment to visit the members in their home. Listen to the background of their life story and conversion, read scripture with them, and pray for them. It is amazing what such a spiritual visit can do!
Another contribution you can make involves giving attention to the worship service of your church. Read books on worship. Rather than criticizing the staleness that may exist in your current worship service, together think creatively about what you could do. Consider what activities would develop an atmosphere of praise, thanksgiving, adoration, affirmation, and fellowship in your worship service. Perhaps you can work on an “experimental” plan to bring improvement in the worship service. You may be surprised to discover how eager others, especially your pastor, are to improve the worship service.
Every church has a number of inactive members. An elder could begin to visit these people. You may hear a great deal of anger and bitterness expressed, but remember, their anger is at the church and not at you personally. These may be people who are hurting from some past experience in the church. By carefully listening, asking for forgiveness for the entire church, and encouraging these people, a great deal of good can be done. As long as you maintain the qualities of Christ, and simply listen, you will not hurt the person’s experience. Your friendship and caring may help the person return to an active relationship with Jesus and participation in the church.
An elder also can contribute by visiting non-members who have some interest in the church. Make a visit to the non-members in your community who have relatives in the Adventist Church. Check for names of people who may have visited the church or attended an evangelistic activity in the past year. Visit these people and invite them to return. With some training, you can learn to discern interests for Bible studies. Not all elders have the gifts of evangelism and teaching, however, so you may wish to invite someone else to go with you to lead out in the Bible study.
The Holy Spirit equips a Christian disciple by bestowing spiritual gifts to accomplish ministry. But those gifts need to be developed. An elder needs to be aware of the training resources available and make use of them. The first such resource is the pastor. God places a pastor within the church to train and develop its members for ministry. The local pastor in many cases will train elders for visitation, personal Bible study, administration, and worship leadership in the context of ministry. Going two-by-two with your pastor will develop your gifts for ministry as an elder. The fellowship with your pastor while visiting members, giving Bible studies, and working on church projects together is irreplaceable.
Your conference probably has a training program established for elders which includes instruction in worship planning, preaching, and church administration. God has called you to minister and provided gifts to you, but your commitment to that call should include attendance at events designed to develop your gifts for His service.
There are many training seminars that offer help to an elder. Perhaps the best known is the “Calling and Caring Ministry Seminar” (Lab I). Many Adventist pastors are equipped to conduct this seminar, or your conference office can help you enroll for such training. It is an experience that will dramatically improve your skills as a listener and a visitor. This seminar is helpful not only in working with active members, but in caring for the inactive church member as well. This training is a must for every elder.
You may wish to do some further reading regarding the work of the elder. If you are asked to preach — and many elders are — you may want to get some help in that area. Either of the following books would be helpful to an elder who preaches: Preaching to the Times by Charles E. Bradford; Successful Lay Preaching by Floyd Bresee. Elders should enhance their knowledge regarding administration and leadership. Two good recommendations are: Perils of Power by Richard Exley and So You Want to be a Leader by Robert Pierson, our beloved former General Conference president. Of course you cannot forget Elder’s Digest, Elder’s Handbook and Elder’s Guide, excellent tools that help elders to be very effective in their function.
THE CARING CHURCH STRATEGY
The ministry of the elder is vital to accomplish the mission of your local church.
A balanced church program is just as important as any of the individual offices or functions of the church. Your ministry is given meaning and effectiveness as you fit into the overall mission that Christ has for your congregation. The Holy Spirit calls you to teamwork and cooperation with the other leaders in your church, according to a united plan of action.
What are the essential elements of a healthy local church? There are at least four fundamental activities that must be present in any Adventist church for it to be successful:
1. Reaching the community. Healthy churches discover the kinds of people who live in their area and understand the needs of the people, so that they can provide activities designed to meet these needs and create a strong public awareness of the church.
2. Winning people to Christ. Healthy churches cooperate with the Holy Spirit in establishing meaningful relationships with those attracted to Christ, provide opportunities for them to become acquainted with His Word and His fellowship, and challenge them to become His disciples.
3. Nurturing the members. Healthy churches provide for the continuing spiritual growth of all their members through enthusiastic worship, interesting Bible study, supportive friendships, and opportunities for significant service.
4. Inspiring leadership. Healthy churches have pastoral and lay leaders who help the congregation to identify the needs in the church and the community, clarify goals, gather the necessary resources and implement effective action.
“Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me’.” (Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, page 143).
North American Division Local Church Officers Manual, 1988.